Indigestion: Symptoms, Causes, Remedies, and Treatment

Dec 20, 2019 | Celiac Disease, General Medical, GERD, IBS, Reflux/Heartburn


What is Indigestion (Dyspepsia)?

We all know the pain of an upset stomach. But when the stomach ache doesn’t go away, it can be a sign of a bigger issue. Indigestion is a very common condition that involves persistent and recurring pain or discomfort in the abdominal area. Indigestion is also called dyspepsia. The symptoms of indigestion are chronic. And while the symptoms may come and go, get better or worse, or change in frequency, they don’t go away completely.

Indigestion can be experienced on its own. More often, it points to another underlying cause. These causes include things such as ulcers, gallbladder disease, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). When we get busy or stressed, indigestion can get worse. But not everyone feels they have time to deal with it. So indigestion is often pushed aside and ignored. But that doesn’t make things better. Simply ignoring or trying to get through the pain of indigestion can interfere with your life and put you at risk for other medical issues. Talking to your doctor is important to help relieve your discomfort, as well as to treat any underlying causes.

What Are the Symptoms of Indigestion?

Gastrointestinal symptoms that continue to occur, don’t improve, or get worse, are signs of indigestion. These uncomfortable markers of indigestion can be made worse by stress. Eating certain foods can aggravate indigestion. So what should you be looking for? Symptoms of indigestion include any or all of the following:

  • Abdominal pain or a burning sensation in the upper abdomen
  • Feeling very full during or after a normal size meal
  • An acidic taste in your mouth and/or bad breath
  • Bloating
  • Growling stomach
  • Increased belching and gas
  • Nausea and vomiting

If you experience any of these symptoms, do not ignore them. Make an appointment to discuss them with your doctor, or a gastroenterologist. Indigestion can sometimes be lessened or managed by making changes to diet and lifestyle. But truly healing requires that you address not just the symptoms but the underlying causes. Indigestion often occurs alongside other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Celiac disease, gastritis, and even cancer. A thorough examination and diagnosis are important to rule out more serious conditions and complications.

You should also be aware of symptoms that indicate an emergency. Symptoms that are similar to indigestion can sometimes be caused by a heart attack. If you experience unexpected or unexplained indigestion, and if symptoms include sweating, shortness of breath, or pain to areas like your neck, jaw, or arms, you should get emergency medical assistance immediately. Other symptoms that require immediate attention include severe vomiting, vomit that is bloody, black stools, trouble swallowing, or unexplained weight loss.

Are Heartburn and Indigestion the Same?

In a word, no. Heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest which can be experienced along with indigestion. However, heartburn is technically a separate condition and may indicate other different underlying causes. Occasional heartburn occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. Occasional heartburn is normal and no cause for concern. However, if you experience heartburn more than twice a week, and if it is worse after you eat, when you lie down, or when you bend over, you should talk with your doctor. Heartburn is often a sign of GERD, and treatment is necessary to prevent further complications such as damage to the esophagus or a disease called Barrett’s esophagus.

Heartburn is associated with issues related to stomach acid. But indigestion is caused when the muscles of your gastrointestinal organs, or the nerves that control those muscles, are not working the way they should. The nerves involved can be those within the organs, but can also be nerves in the brain and the spinal cord. So again, while symptoms can overlap, the two conditions are different.

Causes and Risk Factors for Indigestion

Indigestion can be caused by a variety of factors including medications, diseases, and certain lifestyle choices.

Medications that cause indigestion include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen. Some types of antibiotics, steroid medications, thyroid medicine, and estrogen and oral contraceptives can be responsible for indigestion. If you are taking any of these medications and experiencing indigestion, talk to your doctor before you stop taking the medicine.

Underlying diseases can also be the cause of indigestion. Diseases associated with Indigestion run a wide spectrum from thyroid disease, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to GERD, stomach cancer, and gastroparesis (common in diabetics).

Lifestyle choices can put you at risk for indigestion as well. Drinking too much alcohol or smoking are the leading lifestyle causes of indigestion. Eating habits also play a role, especially eating too much or too fast. Lying down while eating or soon after eating can make symptoms worse. Stress and fatigue are also direct contributors to indigestion. Pregnancy can cause or make indigestion worse, although heartburn is the more common condition during pregnancy.

Although uncommon, it is possible to have indigestion that is not related to any of these causes. Indigestion of this type is called functional or non-ulcer dyspepsia. The wide variety of causes makes an accurate diagnosis very important.

How Is Indigestion Diagnosed?

Abdominal discomfort can often be relieved or remedied with some simple steps. Rest, reducing stress, exercise, and applying heat to the abdomen can help. Over-the-counter antacids like Rolaids, Tums, or Alka-Seltzer will help relieve heartburn that is often associated with indigestion. You may also be able to find patterns in your indigestion that help you avoid symptoms getting worse. Keeping a log of foods, situations, and times of day that make your symptoms worse can help you identify and avoid them.

However, home remedies alone are not likely to cure your indigestion. If you are experiencing frequent stomach aches or any of the symptoms of indigestion, it is a good idea to talk with your doctor. Before your appointment, try to take note of exactly when the symptoms occur, where you feel the most discomfort and if anything improves the pain. The more specific information you can provide, the better it will help your doctor narrow down the broad range of possibilities and make an accurate diagnosis. Your doctor will also likely do blood tests and possibly X-rays of the stomach and small intestine to rule out certain causes and underlying conditions. Your doctor may also recommend an endoscopy which is a procedure that uses a tube with a tiny camera and light to examine parts of your digestive system.

Treatment Options for Indigestion

Depending on the underlying cause of your indigestion, your doctor will recommend the best treatment plan for you. This will typically include education about indigestion and recommendations for lifestyle changes to help alleviate discomfort. Your doctor may also recommend medications like a muscle relaxant or a promotility drug to either slow down or speed up the function of muscles in the digestive tract. Your doctor may even prescribe an antidepressant which can impact the nerves involved in the digestive tract. 

How Long Does Indigestion (Dyspepsia) Last?

Indigestion is a chronic condition and can last for months, years, or even a lifetime. However, with proper medical assessment and treatment, indigestion can be controlled and the symptoms reduced or removed so that you are not limited by the discomfort of indigestion.

The doctors at Gastroenterology Consultants of Savannah specialize in the treatment of gastrointestinal issues, and we are committed to helping patients achieve and maintain optimal gastrointestinal health. We would love to partner with you to address your health concerns. Contact us today.